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Virtual reality overshadows smartphones at the biggest mobile show of the year

Virtual reality overshadows smartphones at the biggest mobile show of the year


HTC's Vive, Samsung's Gear VR, and others take center stage at MWC

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It was a banner year for Mobile World Congress (more commonly known as MWC to attendees), the annual conference for all things mobile related. The GSMA, the organization that puts on the show every year, will surely release attendance numbers and other data in a few weeks, but I have no reason to suspect there were fewer people here than last year’s 85,000 attendees. Those thousands of attendees weren’t disappointed: this year’s show was the most exciting and interesting MWC in years, and not in the ways that you might expect.

All of the usual things we've expected to see at MWC were here in force this year. There were major smartphone announcements that will be important for the millions of people buying new phones over the next few months. Massive show floor booths housed countless infrastructure companies and business solutions providers with names most people have never heard of but are worth billions of dollars. And of course, there were plenty of smartwatches of every kind. So many smartwatches.

This year saw an explosion of interest in VR

But while all of those things have been staples of MWC for a long time, this year saw an explosion of interest in virtual reality, which is more associated with the Game Developer Conference held concurrently in California. It almost felt like there was more VR stuff here at MWC than there was two months ago at CES, which includes a much broader range of technology products.

In some cases, these VR systems require a phone to work. Samsung showed off its latest take on its Gear VR, for instance, which works with the new Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge smartphones. It’s an improved version of the concept the company first introduced last fall, and it represents what may be the most likely way consumers will first experience modern VR systems.

Other VR systems at MWC, though, were completely phone-free. There were numerous booths filled with small software companies showing demos on Oculus Rift headsets, which need to be plugged into PCs in order to function. That’s not very mobile at all.

There were companies pitching VR headsets for business applications and video chatting, demonstrating that there’s some crossover potential for the technology, which most people associate with leisure and gaming.

Most attendees would say the most impressive product at MWC wasn't a smartphone or a smartwatch

But most journalists that were here at MWC would say the most impressive thing they saw wasn’t Samsung’s new and greatly improved Galaxy smartphone, or Huawei’s surprisingly impressive take on Android Wear. It was HTC’s Vive, a surprise announcement from a company that until now was entirely focused on mobile devices.

The Vive, born out of a partnership with Valve, is a new VR headset packed with innovative sensors and motion tracking that addresses many of the complaints people have had with other recent VR headsets. It uses lasers to track your location in a space and can prevent you from walking into real-world objects while you’re immersed in a fantasy world. Valve’s Gabe Newell even went so far as to say that "zero percent of people" will get sick using the Vive thanks to its head-tracking capabilities. That’s a bold claim, but it’s a real issue for many people, who get nauseous after just a few minutes in other VR headsets. It’s one of the major hurdles that VR will need to overcome if it’s ever going to get mainstream adoption.

Unlike the Oculus, which uses a traditional gaming controller, or the Gear VR, which relies entirely on head motion and a touchpad on the side of the headset, the Vive works with peripherals that can map your limbs in space and allow you to perform actions such as painting on a canvas. Bringing your limbs into the equation does so much to increase the perception that the virtual world is real; it'd be surprising if other VR headset makers didn't adopt a similar approach.

Perhaps most surprising, since the Vive comes from HTC, is that it doesn’t use a smartphone at all and actually needs to be plugged into a PC in order to function, just like the Oculus.

Perhaps most surprising is the HTC Vive isn't even a mobile device

VR’s explosion at MWC this year highlights where we’re at with mobile technology and technology in general. Smartphones are so pervasive, so common, that even major new device announcements from the largest companies in the world don’t engender the same excitement they might have a few years ago. Samsung will surely sell more Galaxy S6 smartphones this year than all of the VR headset makers combined have to date. But for lovers of technology, what’s more exciting: a new smartphone that’s just marginally better than last year’s model or an entirely new experience unlike anything before it? Based on the buzz surrounding HTC’s Vive (which isn’t even a finished product), the answer to that question is clear.

It’s exciting to see shows like MWC act more as platforms for new technology concepts and less for everyday commodity devices. The smartphones, smartwatches, and massive booths filled with infrastructure providers you’ve never heard of aren’t going to go away any time soon. But I have a feeling they will be seeing more competition from futuristic concepts and entirely new ideas as each year passes. And for that, I’m eager to see what will be at MWC next year.